Monday, February 15, 2010

Day 4: The Trouble with the IOC

I have had resentment brewing about the IOC since they decided, in their infinite wisdom, to remove softball (as well as baseball) from the Olympic docket. And as I watched the Canadien (see, I am cosmopolitan) women’s hockey team score eighteen goals against Slovakia, I begin to ferment resentment yet again.

Sports dominated by non-European teams have had a tough time as of late. And sports with large or growing European followings are poised to compete for newly minted gold medals in future games. As of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, softball and baseball are no longer Olympic sports, while at the same time the IOC considers including gold and rugby the next time around.
Baseball and softball are out of the Olympics as of 2012, in a vote that surprised even longtime International Olympic Committee members. (Source)
With respect to baseball, the list of reasons offered is slightly respectable (the absence of Major Leaguers when the NBA sends its stars and the reputation of major league baseball in terms of drug testing are two such reasonable “objections”). However, none of these is applicable in the case of softball, where the best players always compete in the Olympics. In short, it seems pretty clear that softball was removed because North American and Asian teams dominate it. This map represents (in blue) the countries that participated in softball at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.

The New York Times reported in July of 2005 (I said this had been brewing for a while):
Softball had no such consolation. [That is, a list of reasonable "objections."] The sport worked for 30 years to become part of the Olympics. Since 1996, the United States team has produced some of the biggest stars of the Games and helped increase women's participation in the Olympics, also one of the I.O.C.'s goals.

The main criticism was that the United States team was so dominant. It went undefeated in the 2004 Games but has received strong competition from Australia and China.
In fact, the United States lost to Japan in the Gold Medal game at the Beijing games: several commentators remarked that this lost was (unintentionally) U.S. softball's greatest contribution to mainting softball as an Olympic sport. In addition to this "timely" loss and the larger, 30 year effort for Olympic inclusion, U.S. softball made efforts to promote the sport internationally, including sending equipment and inviting international competition.

Even the complaint about the lack of competition rings hollow when compared to similar dominance in other Olympic events. In basketball, the U.S. typically (since 1992) dominates (with the exception of the Athens' games in 2004). The big difference in this case is that basketball is hugely popular in Europe. It isn't just dominance; it is dominance relative to interest (and thus immediate potential).

The ultimate irony in all of this is best captured by famed female golfer Annika Sorenstam of Sweden:
[She] said inclusion in the Olympics would trigger golf's growth worldwide. "The amount of golfers in the last 10 years really hasn't increased," she said. In the long-term, it would attract "new players from different countries. It would be fabulous." (Source)
If the complaint is a lack of competition, it makes little sense to cancel it, particularly when non-European countries have become increasingly competitive in sports historically dominated by Europeans. For instance, this year’s compelling performance by the U.S. Nordic Combined team, which one the first ever medal for the U.S. in this sport. This success, then, informs my response to the exclusion of softball. As does this:
Ron Radigonda, the executive director of USA Softball, said the number of nations playing softball had jumped to 127, ranking softball 14th on the list of 28 sports. (Source)
If you include it, they will come.

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